This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A.G. Vogele on Sunday, June 25, 2017, Third Sunday after Pentecost. Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-13, Matthew 10:24-39.
Did you feel just the slightest hesitation at the end of the Gospel reading before responding, “Praise to you, O Christ”? Not only is this a hard Gospel to preach on but when I read “and a daughter will betray her mother” it was all I could do not to turn to my mom and say, “Don’t worry, Mom, not going to do that.”
None of the readings feels very much like Good News today. So forgive me if I take a little longer to uncover that Good News in all this.
You see, we are so used to Jesus preaching about peace. The night Jesus was born, a whole host of angels appeared to the shepherds and praised God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth” (Luke 2:13, 14). Jesus came to bring peace on earth. One could even say that peace was the central reason for Jesus’ life and death. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Again and again, after Jesus healed someone he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And when he sent out the seventy on mission, he said to them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’” (Luke 10:5) What’s more, when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, his first words were, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36).
The Apostle Paul sums up the heart of the gospel by writing that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
The New Testament is permeated with the theme of Jesus bring peace, Jesus as our peace, Jesus – the Prince of Peace.
And so, I am always a little disturbed at Jesus when I hear his words in this morning’s Gospel passage: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:35).
We have such a strong image of Jesus as bringing peace that these words of his bring us up short. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it’s not what I want to hear at all.
If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, why is he declaring just the opposite? And he goes on to add insult to injury by saying that a son will betray his father and a daughter her mother and a daughter-in-law her mother-in-law. In short, your enemies will be members of your own family.
And it gets worse. If you love father or mother, or son or daughter more than me, Jesus says, you are not worthy of me. If you are not willing to take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, you are not worthy of me. If you try to find your life, you’ll lose it. The only way you can find your life is by losing it – for Jesus’ sake.
We conveniently forget that in addition to being the Prince of Peace, Jesus was a prophet – like the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Moses. And prophets are called to speak truth to power, come what may. They are relentless. They don’t soften their message with a little sugar to help folks swallow what they have to say. They are loud and clear – truth tellers to those who don’t want to hear the truth.
No wonder no one wanted to listen to them.
And neither do we. Why is that?
Because the truth is hard to hear. Why else do we put off going to the doctor? Why else do we avoid the difficult but real conversation with our spouse or child or loved one or boss? The truth is hard. The truth, often times, feels like really bad news before it feels like Good News.
William Sloane Coffin said, “There is a fundamental, unacceptability about unpleasant truth. We all shield ourselves against its wounding accuracy…Every prophet has realized that nobody loves you for being the enemy of their illusions.” (speaking on 30 Good Minutes, February 16, 1992).
And yet, God keeps sending us prophets precisely because we need to hear the truth.
Jesus said that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). He should have added, “but first it’s going to hurt like heck.”
This is precisely why most of us don’t get into shape or work on bad habits or do something different with our lives even when our hearts ache for change. We know we’ll be the better for it, but we can’t stomach the work or the risk it will take – the dying to our old ways in order to be transformed and live.
One preacher commented, “I am saddened that for me and for many, this business of Christ following is at best a veneer, a waxen mask that I wear to the church dance without really allowing my inner being to be changed” (Peter Woods).
I don’t want a “veneer” faith. What’s the point of that?
I don’t know why you’re here this morning. I’m here because I yearn to be free and I know that Jesus – his message, his example, his being, his truth – has set me free and continues to set me free – “If the Son sets you free,” he declared, “you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
No matter how hard it is to hear, the truth sets us free. And every time we turn away from hearing it, we die – a little or a lot. We become less than ourselves – less open, less alive, less free – less whom God has created us to be. We know this and, yet, we pretend we don’t.
Because it will necessarily entail dying to myself and my ways. And I’m not sure I’m ready for that.
When I was just 24 years old, I went to Africa as Volunteer Missionary. I lived with another missionary in a house on the diocesan compound which also included the bishop’s house, the diocesan office, and another dwelling.
Now people in their early 20s feel that they know a lot and I was no exception. I was there about a year and, as Youth Worker for the Diocese, was meeting with many youth groups and getting to know the young people. One young couple in a local parish was getting married and since I had access to a computer, they asked if I would create some wedding invitations for them. Mind you, this computer didn’t have the capability of different fonts or anything fancy but they really wanted computer wedding invitations. So I made the invitations and put them in an envelope and put the envelope in the church’s little mailbox in the Diocesan office and went back to my house. A little later, I had to go back over to the office for something and there was Gashagaza, a deacon, sitting at the table with the envelope opened, looking at those wedding invitations. In a rather sarcastic voice I said to him, “I don’t think that envelope was addressed to you.”
Oh, that got him very upset and he said back, “Women do not talk to men that way.” To which I added, “Well in my country, it’s against the law to open someone else’s mail.” Now that was a bit of hyperbole because the envelope wasn’t officially mailed, but I was trying to make a point (albeit a know-it-all one).
We exchanged a few more tense words before I decided I’d had enough and left the office and went back to my house. “Forget him!” I thought, once back in my house. “He was so wrong to open that envelope and then he gets upset with me! It was his fault. He should have apologized to me!” “It’s his problem, not mine.” And I tried to forget about it and go about my business, but I couldn’t. I was fuming and agitated and after several more minutes, my conscience (God) really made it clear that I needed to apologize to him. “No way! He was the one who was wrong.” But my conscience wouldn’t let me off the hook. So then I thought, “OK. I’ll say, ‘Gashagaza, I’m sorry I upset you, but…’” Nope. Couldn’t qualify my apology with a “but.” What a struggle this was for me. My ego did not want to submit to this and kept justifying itself. Finally, I knew I had to go back in the office and apologize to Gashagaza.
So I walked over and entered the office and said, “Gashagaza, I’m sorry I upset you.” PERIOD. There was silence and then Gashagaza said, “I know I shouldn’t have opened that envelope.” He then added, “…but women don’t talk to men like that in our culture.” That “but” hooked me and I retorted, “Well in my country, people don’t open each other’s mail.” Fortunately, there was a third person in office, sweet Jean, who had witnessed all of this who said, “But we aren’t in a Zairian culture or an American one. We are in a Christian culture.” That took all the wind out of both Gashagaza and my sails and we were able to give it a rest.
After all that wrestling with my ego, when I finally surrendered to my conscience – to God’s ways and went back in the office and apologized to Gashagaza, afterwards I felt like I have been released from a kind of slavery – I felt free.
Every day, God confronts us with the truth and we have a choice: will we hear it or will we drown it out with our many vehicles of escapism? Will we stay open to the message, however difficult, or will we walk away?
I admit that many times I’ve said, “Not today, buddy.” But I’ve also said, “yes.” Thank God that God doesn’t give up on us and will keep offering us this choice until we are finally ready to say, “Yes” and be free. Thanks be to God.